Researchers developing open-source designs to create low-cost ventilators quickly

A team of researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) is creating designs to turn hand-held, bag valve mask (BVM) resuscitators into automated ventilators for the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Sharon Gaudin April 7, 2020

A team of researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) is creating designs to turn inexpensive and readily available manual, hand-held, bag valve mask (BVM) resuscitators into automated ventilators that could be used to fill the deep gap between the number of life-saving ventilators available and the much larger number that will be needed when COVID-19 is expected to peak.

The WPI researchers are going to make designs of multiple devices and their components publicly available so anyone with a 3D printer and a background in electronics and mechanical engineering could use them to produce ventilators for their local hospitals. A manufacturing company also could use the designs to produce ventilators quickly and at scale.

“I just wanted to do something to help,” said Gregory Fischer, professor of robotics engineering and mechanical engineering, and director of the PracticePoint Medical Cyber-Physcial Systems R&D Center, who spearheaded the idea. “A lot of people are trying to contribute, and this is an area where we can make an impact. We’re taking things that are used every day in emergency medicine and finding a way to turn them into safe, reliable, and readily replicable ventilators that can save patients’ lives. And we’re sharing those designs with the world.”

After getting advice about what hospitals need from clinicians, Fischer, who had worked as an EMT in his hometown, began putting the plan together to coordinate different groups of WPI researchers to begin creating their own designs. The expectation is to post multiple designs—some for individual components of the system (including valve and sensor modules), one for a simple and readily replicable actuated ventilator, and one for a more automated and complex system. That way people or companies looking to create a system can either use a full design or use a design for a component that they’ve been missing or having trouble creating.

The ventilators built from these designs are not meant to replicate the full-feature functionality of a commercial system; they are meant to be used for more stable patients so the commercial ventilators with more advanced sensing and control can be saved for critical patients.

As the COVID-19 pandemic quickly spreads around the world, the United States has become a hotspot. The virus, which is more lethal than the seasonal flu, attacks people’s lungs, in some cases compromising their ability to breathe and leading to pneumonia. COVID-19 patients are dying because they can’t get enough oxygen to their bloodstream, causing organ failure.

According to the American Hospital Association, 96 million Americans are expected to test positive for COVID-19, with 4.8 million requiring hospitalization and 960,000 needing a ventilator, which pumps air into the patients’ lungs through a tube that has been inserted into their windpipes. While those needing ventilators won’t all be ill at the same time, the U.S. only has about 200,000 ventilators, reports the Society of Critical Care Medicine. And the ventilators available aren’t always where they are most needed.

A lot of people are trying to contribute, and this is an area where we can make an impact.

Gregory Fischer Professor of Mechanical Engineering

Fischer and the WPI research team want to help close that gap between the number who will need ventilators and the number of machines actually available.

The team, which worked remotely to develop their designs, includes Marko Popovic, assistant research professor in physics and robotics engineering; Cagdas Onal, associate professor of mechanical engineering; Dirk Albrecht, associate professor of biomedical engineering; Chris Nycz, a research scientist working with WPI’s PracticePoint; Paulo Carvalho, a robotics engineering doctoral candidate, and Hamilton White, a PhD student in biomedical engineering.

A commercial ventilator costs anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000. A complete ventilator converted from a manual resuscitator with the WPI designs is expected to cost less than $500 and be made with readily available components.

“I like the idea of taking these cheap, readily available manual devices and converting them into something that can be run autonomously,” said Fischer, who is leading a research project funded by the National Science Foundation to accelerate international collaboration and open-source hardware, software, and testing for surgical robots. “Normally an EMT would be squeezing the bag to keep the flow of air going. We can automate that squeezing, and we’re adding pressure and CO2 sensors so it can maintain minimum and maximum pressures, and ensure appropriate air exchange. It will provide a consistent respiratory cycle.”

Popovic is working on a design for an oxygen concentrator, which is a device that removes nitrogen to supply an oxygen-enriched gas stream to a patient. The concentrator can be used on its own or can be part of the overall ventilator design. COVID-19 patients need a higher level of oxygen because of their diminished lung capacity.

Popovic also is laying out a design to 3D print valves for the concentrator. Normally, each valve would cost about $100 but by 3D printing them, the cost drops to between $10 to $15 a piece. The valve, which was recently invented in his lab, is lighter, more compact, more controllable, and less expensive than traditional valves.

“Given the current situation with COVID-19, the need for oxygen concentrators and ventilators is growing exponentially. This is a very unusual situation for our health care system. We can help, so we’re helping,” Popovic said.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI)

– Edited by Chris Vavra, associate editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology,

Author Bio: Sharon Gaudin, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI)